Jungle Palace Boys
A daring male model underwear photoshoot in the abandoned and forgotten side of Singapore
Singapore has always been a challenge for me to do the type of photoshoots I've wanted to do there - urbex/abandoned paired with men's physique. For anyone who isn't aware, it's a heavily developed, modern and wealthy city-state island country and while you can still find pockets of older buildings, it's a much greater task to find abandoned or run down ones. I had done the boring beach photoshoots on other visits, but really craved a more challenging and interesting location with character and a story behind it for my visit in 2016.
I don't recall who first told me about Istana Woodneuk, but I think it was my friend Wyatt, who I was staying with on this particular trip. He told me about this old, possibly haunted (naturally) mansion on an off limits plot of wooded land somewhere in the city. The details were scarce, as was the current state of the place and accessibility, but it was enough to get me excited and researching. Internet searches provided more solid information and eventually I found an exact location. I had 3 shoots lined up on this trip and was hoping this would be the place to do them. One of the guys, who was a friend of mine would be the first and a sort of test run to check out the place with me.
On the morning of the shoot we made our way out to the area on the map. We found a discreet path off the sidewalk along a busy road that led into the thick trees of the forest. My biggest fear at this point wasn't the infamously strict Singapore police, but f*ing snakes. A year before this trip there was a viral video I saw from Singapore of a cobra and a python having it out on a city street and that image haunts me to this day. So there we went, into the unknown, off limits of wild Singapore. Under the dense canopy of the trees we made our way down one hill and up another, pushing back branches and spider webs, making sure to keep a sharp eye on the path in front of us. Before long we came to a clearing and an old, broken asphalt driveway overrun with weeds. We cautiously followed the driveway, thinking that since we are now in the open we may be spotted by the authorities or landowner, who were surely waiting for us behind a bush, ready to pounce. As we came around a turn there it was - the old palace rising up out of the trees and overgrowth that now consumed it. Unfortunately, I was quite paranoid at this point - convinced that the police were going to find us out and while I could usually b.s. my way out of tricky situations elsewhere, in Singapore I feared I'd get detained and deported. I didn't take any photos of the outside of the place, as I usually do - none! I'm really disappointed in myself for this, and I didn't realize it until it was too late. I was so focused on getting in, getting the shots of the guys and getting out. This was 6 years ago and I'm happy to say I'm a lot more thorough now when I visit such locations - usually capturing photo and video of the place in addition to the obvious captures I get of the volunteers who accompany me 😉
We walked around and scoped it out, deciding the best spots to use for photos and getting a sense of the order in which to do it, so as to be efficient as possible. I gave my usual spiel about being careful in watching where you step, so as to avoid broken glass, nails, weak floorboards, etc. I also warned of bees, wasps and hornets - dilapidated old buildings are prime real estate for these bastards. Lastly, as always I stressed the importance of making as little noise as possible and not speaking loudly - if someone is going to show up suddenly, it's better we hear them before they hear us. We chose a spot on the 2nd floor to set all our stuff down and prepare. As my friend and subject got down to his underwear and lathered up in mosquito repellant, I checked out the remnants of the room next door. As I peered around the doorway, I saw a beautiful old bathtub which would have been perfect for photos! I then saw a massive hornet (or wasp) nest in the corner and could see and hear the little pricks coming at me . I immediately turned around to make a quick getaway, but as I'm fleeing I get stung - twice. As painful as the stings were, I was more disappointed we couldn't use that room for our shoot. Dammit.
Stings aside, the rest of our shoot went off without a hitch. We explored upstairs and down and marveled at the place - it's current state and how grand it must have been back in the day. We finished up and made our way back to where I was staying. My friend helped me clean the stings and then we relaxed and cooled down in the AC while going over the photos from the day. Success!
The next day I had the 2 other shoots, back to back. Both went smoothly, especially now that I knew what room to avoid so as not to get the model or myself stung, again. We used some of the same spots as I had the day before and found some new ones, including a dark, creepy bathroom on the lower level that had a bathtub full of dirty water and god knows what else.
By the second shoot of the day, I was pretty much done. The weather was miserable - hot and oppressively humid and the mosquitoes seemed to be getting more and more ferocious. I felt we get all the images we could and it was time to quit while I was ahead, so we made our way back into the jungle and out onto the main road.
Some days later I got a WhatsApp message from one of the guys - turns out he's friends with the Prince of Johor, whose family owns the old place. My friend had posted something to his social media and the prince left a cheeky message about us being on his property. He assured me we were in the clear and weren't going to get in any trouble, after the fact 😆
I've been back to Singapore since that trip and desperately wanted to have another go at the old palace, but was warned by friends to stay away this time. The police had since really clamped down on trespassers and were arresting violators on the spot.
Here's some history:
"Istana Woodneuk is hidden within dense vegetation, bound by Tyersall Road and Holland Road. Greeted with a series of cantilevered balconies and a veranda with a large staircase leading to its elevated first storey, one would not doubt why the house is termed ‘Istana’ (Palace in Malay)." - State of Buildings
"Istana Wooden York is an abandoned two-storey palace at the former Tyersall Park, near the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Before it was rebuilt in 1935 it was known as Istana Woodneuk. It suffered a major fire in 2006 and has been deemed beyond repair. The remains of the palace, as well as the land it sits on, is private land belonging to the State of Johor (Malaysia). It is not charted on most modern maps and is currently not accessible to the public." - Wikipedia
"Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar (1873-1959) rebuilt the house in the 1930's for his third wife, Scottish-born Sultana Helen Ibrahim (1889-1978). The house stood resilient to Japanese bombings during WWII, and was renovated again before Governor General Malcolm MacDonald took over. The house was thereafter handed back to the Sultan’s lineage, which was reluctant to reside in it for no apparent reasons. Today, the house is deemed structurally unsafe after a fire consumed its roof in 2006." - The Travel Intern
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